Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Rusted “metal” containers on the cheap

I greatly admire creative minds like Loree Bohl of The Danger Garden or Annette Gutierrez and Mary Gray of Potted. It seems so effortless for them to come up with original ideas for garden containers. Loree has created dish planters out of birdfeeder tops and has upcycled metal odds and ends in a variety of ways, and Anette and Mary have written an entire book on the subject.

My ambitions are decidedly more pedestrian, but that doesn't take away from the excitement I feel when I complete a project, even a modest one.

Over the last few years we've been adding Corten steel containers to the front yard to introduce some much-needed vertical elements and gain planting height. I love the rich look of rust that weathering steel like Corten develops over time, but metal planters are pricy. I've finally found an alternative that has much of the same look with just a fraction of the price tag.

Here is an example I did last fall:


Ground-level view:


Friday, March 15, 2019

Visiting Jo O'Connell, plant maven from down under

As you may remember, I went on a quick road trip to Southern California right after Thanksgiving. One of the stops I was most looking forward to was Australian Native Plants nursery in Casitas Springs just outside of Ventura.

Few people in the U.S. know more about plants from down under than Australia-born horticulturist Jo O'Connell. She started the nursery in the early 1990s with her American husband Byron Cox and, through passion, dedication and perseverance, has developed it into a leading resource for plant material from the southern hemisphere. Much of the plants Jo and Byron offer are propagated by themselves, either from their own stock or from seeds imported from Australia. Literally, they are often the only source for a particular plant in the entire U.S. As you can see here, their plant list is truly impressive.

Jo O'Connell and Australian cattle dog Wallaby who guards the plants in the nursery

Jo O'Connell's personal story reads like a movie script—if Hollywood made movies about plant people, that is. 

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Weekend Wrapup (WeWu) for 3/10/19: rain, flowers, and foliage

As I'm typing this, the sky is much darker than it should be at 5:00 pm, and the rain has started to fall. I don't even bother looking at the forecast any more. Just like I'm sure people further north are sick of the snow, I'm sick of the rain. I'm careful saying it because it seems sacrilegious—not long ago we would have given anything for rain. There doesn't seem to be an in-between anymore, it's all one extreme or the other.

Maybe because of the long cool winter (or spring? not sure what season we're in!), the Grevillea 'Flora Mason' in the backyard has been flowering far longer than it usually does; this is month 4!

Grevillea 'Flora Mason'

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Tucson's Pima Prickly Park: amazing what dedicated volunteers can accomplish

Tucson has no shortage of destinations for plant lovers. I've blogged about many of them before, including my personal faves: the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tohono Chul Park, and the Tucson Botanical Gardens. Although they're different in their own ways, they have one thing in common: they're run by organizations with a professional staff.

Then there's Pima Prickly Park: a public desert garden that has neither a professional staff nor much of a budget (if any).


Located on West River Road next to the offices of Pima County's Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation Agency, the 7-acre property is owned by Pima County. What makes the site so special is that it was "adopted" by the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society (TCSS) in 2010. Run by the TCSS under a 15-year operating agreement with Pima County, Pima Prickly Park was officially dedicated in September 2012. TCSS members have volunteered countless hours and donated countless plants to create a desert habitat park that highlights opuntias (prickly pears and chollas) and compatible desert plants. The park is not fenced so it's basically open anytime, although technically the hours are from sunrise to sunset. There is no fee for parking or admission.

I first visited Pima Prickly Park on New Year's Day 2015 when it was still very much a work in progress. My second visit was exactly four years later, New Year's Day 2019. I could hardly believe it was the same place. The 3000+ additional hours put in by TCSS volunteers between early 2015 and early 2019 have made an enormous difference. Anybody who has ever been involved in a club dependent on volunteer work can appreciate what a monumental achievement that level of participation is, even for a club as large and active as the TCSS.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Bach's Cactus Nursery in Tucson on a chilly winter day

Since I'm housebound because of the rain and can't do any work in the garden, let's go on a virtual nursery visit. The experience may be vicarious, but at least we'll stay dry.

Last New Year's Eve, I visited Bach's Cactus Nursery, one of Tucson's best retail destinations for succulent lovers. It was a cold day, the sky heavy with menacing-looking clouds, and I didn't expect the nursery to be busy. It wasn't, but I wasn't the only customer either, which surprised and pleased me.

Bach's is located north of downtown, not exactly out in the country but not in a bustling part of town either. The turnoff onto the dirt road/driveway that leads into the nursery does look decidedly rural:


Thursday, February 28, 2019

Tohono Chul really is one of Tucson's best-kept secrets for desert plant lovers

Recently two different people asked me if I had ever been to Tohono Chul Park in Tucson and, if so, what I thought of it. The answer is easy: yes, and I love it.

I visited Tohono Chul for the first time in 2013, then in 2015, and again last December. If it were in a different town, Tohono Chul would be the leading botanical attraction. The fact that in Tucson it's relegated to a lesser tier speaks volumes about the quantity and quality of parks and gardens available there. Tucson not only has a national park (Saguaro National Park), a world-class zoo, natural history museum and botanical garden all rolled into one (Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum), another botanical garden (Tucson Botanical Gardens), a campus-wide arboretum (University of Arizona), and a score of smaller parks—not to mention great nurseries. Not bad at all for a city of 500,000!

I think Tohono Chul can easily hold its own, even in a crowded field like that, and deserves to be much better known among out-of-town visitors. I have a feeling, though, locals are quite happy to have Tohono Chul mostly to themselves and let the tourists flock to Saguaro National Park and the Desert Museum!

Horse sculpture by Kioko Mwitiki in the Cactus Circle Garden. The cactus, appropriately enough, are Pachycereus marginatus aka Mexican fencepost.


Tohono Chul Park is a 49-acre “living museum” that was once the home of a Tucson couple who fought hard to preserve a slice of native desert. Today Tohono Chul—“desert corner” in the language of the Tohono O'odham—combines nature with art and culture. Miles of trails wind through natural areas and demonstration gardens while three art galleries, classroom facilities and a fine-dining tea room offer attractions for people who are less plant-crazy.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

A crisp Arizona morning at Boyce Thompson Arboretum

In the last couple of days, Arizona saw plenty of rain and snow. Flagstaff set a new snowfall record for Thursday, February 22. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum west of Tucson posted photos of snow-covered cactus, as did the Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior, east of Phoenix.

The weather was much less severe when I was at Boyce Thompson Arboretum (BTA) on December 30. It was  cold, as you can see below, but the sun was out and the air temperature had climbed into the high 40s by the time I left at noon: not as warm as during previous visits in December, but just fine for walking around. In fact, I was so into the plants and scenery all around me that I didn't have time to think of anything else.

You might say that I was in my element!

Monday, February 18, 2019

...which of these aloes is the prettiest of all?

Mirror mirror on the wall, which of these aloes is the prettiest of all?

"All of them," would be a good answer. Or, "that changes daily." Or, "depends on the mood I'm in."

My answer is even more diplomatic: I'll let you be the judge!

Below are most of the aloes in our garden that are in bloom, very close, or at the tail end.

Aloe marlothii, flowering for the first time ever. It looks like the flowers will be more yellow than red, which is what I was hoping for.


Saturday, February 16, 2019

Rain is good—until it's too much

The biggest threat to our plants in the winter is usually the cold. This winter, the lowest nighttime temperature we've had was 30°F, as well as multiple nights right at 32°F. It's ironic, then, that something else has turned out to be the biggest problem—something we were begging Mother Nature for just a few years ago: rain.

In a region where the specter of drought is always a lurking presence, rain is a good thing. Until it isn't. In just the last few days, we've had flooding up and down California (Valentine's Day was the wettest day in Palm Springs in 76 years!), landslides, sinkholes, not to mention toppled trees and more minor incidents.

Nothing so dramatic happened in our little corner of the world. But considering we've had 12.5" of rain since December 1 (vs. 3.7" the year before),  I've become increasingly worried about rot from the excessive rainfall, especially after the 'Desert Love' incident. On Wednesday, I decided to grab what plastic sheeting I could find in the garage and drape it over some of the more vulnerable xeric plants in the front yard. I know it was more to make myself feel better than to effect any real rain protection for the plants, but sometimes that's all we can do.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Finding Nemo the rare Mount Diablo manzanita

I seem to have a thing for plants that start with A: Aloe, Agave, Acacia, and now Arctostaphylos aka manzanitas. With smooth or peeling bark ranging in color from cinnamon to chocolate, contorted branches, stiff leaves in hues from apple green to silver, and masses of small bell-shaped flowers in late winter frequently followed by tiny fruit resembling little apples (hence the Spanish name), their presence cannot be denied.

While some manzanita species are present in other western states as well—the prostrate kinnikinnick or bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) is even found in the polar regions of North America, Asia and Europe—the biggest concentration is in the California Floristic Province (CFP) which stretches from southwestern Oregon into northern Baja California. According to the Field Guide to Manzanitas, 104 of 105 currently recognized Arctostaphylos taxa (species and subspecies) are native to the CFP. (The 105th, oddly enough, grows only at the top of several volcanic craters in Guatemala, thousands of miles from its closest manzanita neighbor.)

The county where I live, Yolo, is home to only one species (the common manzanita, Arctostaphylos manzanita subsp. manzanita), but some of the biggest manzanita hotspots are an easy drive away: Sonoma County (17 species and subspecies), the greater Bay Area (27), and Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties (27). It's one thing seeing plants you like in a residential or public garden, but it pales compared to the real deal: seeing them grow in their natural habitat.

Even though I've done some reading and have seen different manzanita species in botanical gardens, my practical skills at identifying them are virtually non-existent. Some species are very distinct, but many others (especially subspecies) are difficult to tell apart. The best clue is location: the native habitat of a manzanita is probably the best criterion in order to narrow down the possibilities.

Softly undulating hills dotted with oak trees are a typical landscape feature in our part of California

With that in mind, I decided my first manzanita outing of the year should be to a spot that only has two species: Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve near the city of Antioch in the East Bay.